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A lullaby of heavenly peace in Faure’s masterpiece

The Requiem of Gabriel Fauré has been called a “lullaby,’’ an apt description of music far removed from the hellfire of other treatments of the Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead.

Unlike those of Berlioz and Verdi, Fauré doesn’t evoke fear or dread, and its resources – a plaintive orchestra, chorus and soloists – stay tranquil but convincing through most of its 40 minutes. This is what The Florida Orchestra and Master Chorale of Tampa Bay hope for in performances Friday through Sunday under the baton of Resident Conductor Chelsea Gallo. She rounds out the program with Lili Boulanger’s Of a Spring Morning and Camille Saint-Saens’ Symphony No. 3, also known as the Organ Symphony.

The chorus has spent weeks prepping for the Requiem, music that never tires for Matthew Abernathy, artistic director of the Master Chorale.

“The Fauré is certainly one of my top-five pieces of all time,’’ he says. “It’s like great French cuisine: It looks so simple, but to pull it off requires impeccable focus and precision.’’

Fauré was not attracted to power in music; he sought clarity and beauty rather than drama and pathos. He omitted the traditional Dies irae (Day of Wrath) and only briefly during the Libera me does he allude to the final judgment. He had little use for redemption, much less suffering.

“They say that my Requiem does not express the terror of death,’’ the composer wrote. “Someone has called it a lullaby of death. But that is how I see death; as a happy deliverance, as a yearning for the joy that lies beyond, rather than as a sorrowful passing.’’

His greatest choral work is not a declamatory flogging but a treatise on peace and eternal rest. Its tranquility moved Nadia Boulanger (whose younger sister Lili is on this program) to exclaim “Nothing purer, clearer in definition has been written.’’

Fauré was a master of French song, and his Requiem unfolds as series of arias, each imbued with harmonic richness and a fluid rhythm that change little over long periods. This uniformity of tempo suggests that he wanted to preserve the arc of a vocal line without interrupting its direction.

The Santus and Pie Jesu form the core of the work and are perhaps the most expressive music Fauré ever wrote. The Requiem ends in paradise, the angelic sound of sopranos ascending to a heavenly realm.

“It’s really the harmonies that get me,’’ Abernathy says. “There’s a constant shimmer in the music and Fauré’s use of chords to guide us is what so masterfully leads us to the apotheosis.”

Kurt Loft is a member of the Music Critics Association of North America and former music critic for The Tampa Tribune. He lives in St. Petersburg.

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